Body Heart and Soul

Part 22

 

The bars swung inward so quickly Cait swung with them, loosing her balance as they hit Paladia and shoved her backwards, as the ground between them split open.  “Oh!”  Cait scrabbled for a handhold and caught the bottom of the gate as her feet dropped into nothingness.

The bars were slippery with moisture from the storm outside and she lost her grip on one hand, then her eyes widened as she dangled in mid air.

“Aw, crap!”  Paladia bounced off the wall and without further thought dove out over the gap and grabbed hold of the gate with one gloved hand and Cait’s wrist with her other just as Cait lost her grip on the metal. “Grab my fricken belt!”

Cait did, then they both yelled in alarm as the entire hallway rumbled into motion and soldiers started falling into the opening floor with yells of despair.

Xena moved.   She grabbed Gabrielle and bodily threw her through the gateway, and gave Argo a stinging smack on the hindquarters sending the mare lunging forward, the ground crumbling and opening under her hooves as she made a startled, desperate leap through the portal

 Xena saw her safe, then she leaped over the opening and grabbed the gate as she went, trying to swing Cait and Paladia back to the edge of the path with her momentum. “Hang on!”

“Ooof!” Paladia kicked out with her legs to try and get up on the rock ledge, but it shattered as she hit it and fell down into the gap, which was starting to emit a hot moist steam.  “Oh crap!”

Xena tried to use her weight to get them closer, but as she did Apollo bolted past the portal and crashed into her, sending her back out over the gap as the gate swung the other way. “Hey!”.

“Xena!” Gabrielle had landed, rolled and gotten back to her feet, bolting back towards her partner. “Hang on, I’ll get you!”  She reached out as the warrior threw herself at the wall, grabbing hold and yanking her to thump against the wall. “Ugh.”

Some of the soldiers were skirting the wall on the other side, squeezing past the iron bars as support people from their army were grabbing them and pulling them over. 

 Xena was shoving soldiers towards the edge of the gate, along the tiny bit of floor left to them on her side.  “Get back!” She yelled at Gabrielle. “C’mon people! Move!”

“Hey!”

Xena turned back and saw Paladia loosing her grip.  “Damn it!!”  She dove back at the gate grabbing it at the bottom near the two of them and hooking her hand around Paladia’s belt.  “Climb up!”

Paladia got one hand on the crossbar and hauled upward, but then the floor suddenly started to close, slamming against the three of them and sending the two Amazons tumbling into the gap as it clamped around Xena’s legs and pulled her down as well.

In a moment Gabrielle was on the ground inside the gates, letting out an inarticulate yell as she lunged onto her belly, grabbing at her soulmate.  “Xena!!!!”

Apollo had reached his sister, and picked her up, moving quickly past the drama in the center of the floor heading back out into the outer world.  

“Thanks for nothing, pinhead!” Aphrodite yelled at his back, then released her pink hold on the ceiling and as it started falling on top of everyone she went to the gap instead, grabbing hold of both sides of it and applying her magic there, face tense with effort.  “SO NOT COOL!”

The army rushed to the side of the gap and flung themselves onto the ground, trying to pry the rock trapping their leader and swallowing the two Amazons.  Solari was first among them, shoving her bow in the gap and yelling in panic. “Hey! Hey!!!”

“You should get out!” Apollo yelled back. “Aphrodite! C’mon!”   He gestured at her. “We’re all that’s left! C’mon! We have to go home!”

“You stupid idiot!” The Goddess of Love screamed back at him. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you even for one stupid second get it???  Help us! Help me help them!!!”

“Them?” Apollo shook his head. “No.” He had Artemis in his arms and he ran down the corridor dodging the support people and army soldiers running back to help.

Rock was tumbling around them and one of them slammed Aprhodite on the back of the head and she tumbled forward, scrabbling to keep her hold on the rock as it tried to surge closed.

Xena saw stars. She clamped her jaw shut and looked down past her knees, where she could see Cait and Paladia smashed together, their faces crumpled in pain. 

The pressure intensified, and Xena felt Gabrielle’s hands wrap around her just as a hugely loud rumble caused rocks to rain down on top of them.  “Get out!” Xena yelled at the soldiers banging at the rock around her.

“Never.”  Bennu yelled back at her. “By the gods, Xena, we’ll all go w’ya.”

Pasi and Jax crouched over Aphrodite, protecting her from the rocks that were now falling like rain. “We got your back.” The Amazon told her. “Just do your stuff.”

“Baby cakes, I’m trying.” Aphrodite growled.  “Stupid family! “

The gap surged and one side of the hallway ceiling collapsed, burying a host of soldiers as Jessan furiously grabbed a bit of the iron, now torn loose from the wall and shoved it in the gap, leaning all his strength against it.

“Would you all get the Hades out of here!” Xena bellowed in frustration.  “Is there sense in all of us dying?”

“Yes.”  Jessan was near her head and bellowing back. “There is sense in dying to make my life mean I would never leave a friend in danger.” He shoved against the steel, his clawed feet scrabbling against the stone.  “That my soul is bared for yours.”

“Ah Jessan.”  Xena closed her eyes in pain. 

“It’s all I have to give.  All I am.” He panted.  “What other offering do any of us have? So no, Xena I won’t turn my back and walk away from you here.” He hauled with all his strength, his hands locked around the metal bar.

“S’true, Xena.”  Bennu was now hip deep in the cleft on her other side. “Grab on my foot there, Cait!”

“Can’t.. quite move.” Cait coughed. “Oh gosh.”

“Hang in there Cait.”  Two of the soldiers squirmed down towards the two trapped Amazons, whacking at the stone with axes.  “We’ll get ye all out!”

Gabrielle slipped her body into the gap, grabbing hold of Xena’s waist as she felt the stone close around her as well.  “You hang in there too.”

Xena looked at her in silence, then she drew breath to speak, pausing when the bard lifted a hand and covered her lips.

“Shut up.” Gabrielle said, just loud enough for her to hear. “This is my place. I earned it.”

Xena rested her head against Gabrielle’s. “Body, heart and soul.  He’s right. It’s all any of ever have to give.”

There was  crack overhead, and then the rocks came down over them.  Xena threw her arms around Gabrielle and took the brunt of them, reeling on the edge of unconsciousness when the light around them shifted and changed, blue meeting pink is shift of startling suddenness.

A loud, male brass bellow rung out and then a tall, bare body was kneeling between Aphrodite and Xena, shoving a blue tinged sword in the gap and flaring a cloud of it over their heads, sending the falling rocks out and back.

“Ares!” Gabrielle gasped.

“Later, blondie.”  Ares got his feet braced on one side of the gap and gripped his sword, hauling back and closing his eyes in concentration. “Busy now.”

The ground writhed around her.  Xena took a deep breath and braced herself, putting her hands on the edge of the rock, feeling a shiver as they passed through the godsfire as she pushed outward.

Rocks cascaded down from the ceiling but stopped just above them as Ares let out another bellow of rage, tensing his body as the blue fire expanded out from him, the sword growing suddenly much brighter between his hands.

There was a sound of the earth splitting.

Xena felt the grip relax and she hauled Gabrielle up and out of the gap. Then she reached down and grabbed Paladia’s cloak, wrapping it around her and and bracing herself to start pulling when a dozen hands grabbed her and hauled her out of the opening and she tightened her grip on the cloak before it was ripped out of her hands. “Hang on!”

“Move it!” Ares grunted. “Can’t hold this!” His body was curved like a bow, muscles standing out under his skin in the blue light,  veins visibly crossing them.  “Go! Go!”

Jessan and a half dozen soldiers hauled Paladia up, her arms clamped so tightly around Cait the tendons were standing out like cords on her arms and they just cleared the gap as it crackled and thumped, and Ares yanked his sword clear as it closed.

“Move!” Bennu shoved Xena and Gabrielle towards the gate and grabbed soldiers and dragged them with him as everyone who’d survived and wasn’t buried in underworld rock scrambled to follow them as fast as they could.

Pasi and Jax gently lifted Aphrodite to her feet and they bolted through the gates with her suspended between them past Ares, who  had paused at the entry and waved them through. “Get moving morts!”

He stood guard until the last of the remaining army ran through under the blue half circle protecting them, stumbling and exhausted, some of them injured, some of them dead.

The ground had swallowed a portion of them.

Those remaining got around the corner of the passage and then it was quiet.  Ares stood there, his hands lit in blue godslight, his will holding back the destruction aching to happen, feeling the weight of the entire mountainside leaning against him.

He leaned back, extending his free hand palm out in a rejecting motion.   Then he turned as Aphrodite came up next to him, extending her own hand out and mingling her godslight with his.  “Yo.”

“Yo.” Aphrodite responded. “Fade to all of them, Ares.”

“You finally got it, huh?”  Her brother shifted his grip in the sword, daring the mountain to try him.

“Yeah.”  The Goddess of Love exhaled. “Finally. “

“It’s the morts.” Ares answered. “Always was.”

“It’s the morts.” The Goddess of Love nodded “Always was.”  She looked into the darkness. “And now they’re ours.”

Ares nodded.  “Let’s go”

He backed out the portal and let his sword drop as she let her hands fall, and in an instant the tunnel imploded, sending a cloud of razor sharp shards blasting over them as the rock collapsed into nothing.

Ares turned at the last moment and spread his arms to protect his sister from the volley of rock as a crowd of bodies came flying back around the corner, weapons raised, ready to help.  “STOP!” The God of War barked.

They stopped.

Ares let his arms drop, and gave himself a shake, then brushed the shards off his chest with a look of profound disgust.  “You suck!” He turned and addressed the now sealed tunnel.  “You couldn’t have beaten my mothers butt pillow.”

Then he turned back and regarded the silently watching crowd.   “What are you all looking at?”

Xena lowered her sword to rest on her shoulder and gave him a brief smile . “Someone get him a cloak.” She said.  “And all of us a hot cup of tea.”

**

They had made the cavern into a reasonable camp, and now, with snow still falling outside and it full night there wasn’t much to do but make the best of it.

Whatever it was, at the moment.

Xena was seated on a box, her head resting against a second. Gabrielle was laying across a third crate, her head resting on her partner’s leg.

Cait and Paladia were sitting on a wagon across from them, silent wrapped in sleeping fur, and Jessan along with Bennu and Solari were sharing a folded hide tarp on the floor, sitting knee to knee in somber silence.

Everyone was in bit of shock.   No one really knew what to say.

Gabrielle finally exhaled, resting her forearm over her eyes. “Let’s go home, Xe.”

One blue eye opened and regarded her warily. “Right now?”

“If I could walk right now I’d say yes. “  The bard said.  “But no. As soon as we can.”

“Agreed.” Xena rested her hand on her partner’s stomach. “Big mistake, coming here.” She admitted. “We should have stayed home and minded our own business.”

“Except we never would have.”

Solari shifted. “Can’t wait to see our place.” She admitted.  “Night in my bunk would feel great. “

“Yeah.” Pasi said. “But hey, we made it, right?”

Xena chuckled wryly.  “We did.” She admitted. Then she straightened up, and gently moved Gabrielle aside. “Need to go get something to eat.”  She got to her feet and stretched, then shook herself and walked through the lines of wagons, Ares the wolf at her heels.

To one side, they’d roped off an area and the horses were there, being fed dried grasses and some grain.   The support teams had built up a fire, warm and crackling and tucked inside it’s heat were a half dozen pots all steaming.

So normal.   On the far side of the cavern the healers had set up roughly made pallets and on them were the soldiers injured in the fighting.  Xena detoured over to them, bypassing the cookfires. 

The healers saw her coming and stood to greet her, wiping off hands full of ointments and cleansers most of which had come from her own hands.   “Xena.”

She joined them, and they drew over one side and lowered their voices. “Whats the count?”

“Got a dozen just breaks and cuts.”  The most senior of them answered.  “Another dozen got crushed in the tunnel there, bad hurt. “ He said. “Got six probably not going to make it.” 

“We left a score in the valley back there, getting up to this place.” One of the others said “Didn’t have time to give em a pyre, and no wood for it any case.”

Xena exhaled, and shook her head. “For nothing.” She murmured. “Damn I wish they’d just kept going.”

“Wouldn’t have.”  The elder healer said, with a faint, gentle smile. “Wouldn’t leave you behind, Xena. You know better.  These soldiers all knew the risk. “

Xena remained still for a time, only her eyes moving as she regarded them. “I wish I’d know the risk.”  She said, bluntly.  “ I should have known better. “ She clapped the elder of them on the shoulder. “Do what you can to make them ready to travel.  Sooner we head for home, the better.”

The man nodded in agreement. “Will do, Xena.” He paused. “Get yourself some rest.  You had a harder row to hoe than the rest of us did.”

Xena nodded, then headed back towards the cookfire, slowing again when she saw Aphrodite approaching her,  a rough brown cloak over her shoulders and a serious expression on her face that looked very out of place to the warrior’s eyes. 

“Xena.” The goddess said. “Can we talk?”

Xena glanced past her, to the little curve in the rock where the Olympians had taken up shelter in solitude.  “Now?”

“Now.”

“Sure.”  Xena gestured towards the cave, and followed Aphrodite towards it.

**

Gabrielle pushed herself up to a seated position, then swung her legs over the edge of the box and dangled them there, regarding the cavern’s other occupants soberly.  “Are you guys okay?” She asked Cait.

“Not really so much.”  Cait answered. “Feels like I fell down a mountain.”

“You did.”  Paladia was leaning against a piece of the rock wall, her eyes firmly shut.

“What a crazy day.” Jessan looked across at Gabrielle.  “So glad it’s over. I feel like I could sleep for a week now.” He paused and thought. “You know though, I didn’t think Apollo was going to turn out such a stinker.”

“No.” Cait said. “Me either.”  She wrapped her arms around her knees. “Did you know him, Gabrielle?”

“Didn’t even realize who it was until Artemis yelled.” Her queen admitted. “Aphrodite was really something though, huh?”  She got to her feet and cautiously stretched her body out, easing the fabric of her cloak over the scrapes and bruises from the cleft.  “And I was never so glad to see Ares in my life.”

“True that.”  Paladia still had her eyes closed. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

Gabrielle walked over to her. “Sure. No guarantee I have an answer though. My brain is toast.”

Paladia opened one eye and looked at her. “You told the wingnut to push the gates. Why?”

Gabrielle took a seat on the rock ledge next to where they were seated.  “Why did I know she could open them you mean?”

“Yeah.”

Cait half turned and looked up at Gabrielle. “I wondered that myself.”

Their queen regarded them with wry fondness.  “Silly kids.”  She mock sighed.  “It’s Persephone’s gate. Or it was.  It’s the boundary between the earth and the underworld, and she went through it to join her one true love.”

They both grimaced.  “Oh” Cait’s nose wrinkled. “Well gosh.”

Jessan chuckled softly, and patted Gabrielle’s leg.  “Glad you were there to know that, little sister.  Would have been a much longer day if you weren’t.”

“Not so much. I’d have been on the other side of that gate getting through it we both know that.”  Gabrielle rested her hand on his shoulder. “Let me go see what Xe’s gotten into.  I’m hoping she’s just ticked off at the weather.”

She stood up and walked off, leaving the cavern and heading the same direction her partner had, moving quickly out of sight.

Cait scratched her nose and gave her head a little shake.  Paladia settled her elbows on her knees, lacing her fingers together and muffling a faint smile.

Jessan leaned back against the rock again, closing his eyes.

**

Xena perched on a haybale and extended her legs, crossing them at the ankles.  The small space contained the four Olympians, Apollo and Artemis seated across from Ares, who was joined by Aphrodite as the goddess entered behind her.

“Why did you bring her here?” Apollo asked, looking cross. “Aphrodite, we’ve got enough problems without dragging random mortals into our business.”

“You really are an idiot.”  Aphrodite said, as she sat down next to Ares.  “So, Xena, let’s catch you up.”

“Do you have to?” Xena said, in a mournful tone.  “I’m about out of party tricks or give a damn right now.”  She let her hands rest on her thighs. “We’re done with this. Soon as it gets light, we’re heading back to Amphipolis.”

“Were it that easy.” Artemis said. “You assume there will be light, or that the home you left still remains.” She held up a hand as Xena stiffened and then stood up. “I mean you no ill will, Xena. We just know the fate of the overworld depends on Persephone, and she will never come back out that path to the world.”

Xena studied her, flexing her hands.  “That tunnel’s not reopening.” She clarified.

“No, uncle was seriously pissed off.”  Aphrodite said  “Especially since we got out of there.” She looked to the side at her brother. “Tell Xena what happened in the chamber.”

Ares was dressed in a set of spare leather and armor, a thick cloak draped over his shoulders.  He had the sword of War loosely gripped between his hands, it’s point resting on the floor.  “One minute I was sitting on a cloud.” He said. “Next minute, I was in that damn chamber, hearing screams all over the place and ducking bolts.”

“I left the sword with you when we ran.”  Xena told him, calmly.  “Since we couldn’t take you with us.”

“You’re kinda dipshit.” Ares told her.  “Woulda made it a lot easier for you if you’d kept it.”

“Didn’t want it.”

Ares rolled his eyes.  

“I didn’t. It hurt like crazy to use it.”  Xena told him.  “It’s not mine. Not my gig. Not something I ever did want, Ares.”

The god of war sighed. “I know.”  He said, in a somber voice. “But you were the only one I could give it to that I knew would have the guts to use it.”

Apollo leaned forward. “You gave it to her?” He asked, in a shocked voice. “Ares!”

“Don’t Ares me.”  The God of War glowered at him.  “Who was down in the underworld trying to goose our rep while you were somewhere drinking nectar?  You come down here at the last minute and act like a big deal? Kiss my ass.”

“Yeah, don’t diss him.” Aphrodite chimed in.   “He’s right. We got no help from you at all.” She pointed one pink fingernailed finger at him.   “Mr Oh I’m holding down the fort here! You jerk.”

“Aphrodite…”

Xena went over to the bale and sat back down, exhaling and letting her hands fall on her knees. “Did you want to tell me something?” She asked pointedly. “I’ve got a route to plot and an army to take care of.”

“Ah doesn’t matter.”  Apollo said, with a sigh. “We failed.  Hades won.”

“How do you figure that?”  Xena asked him. “We beat his army.” She made a vague gesture behind her.  “Inside the underworld, outside the underworld.. one of my scouts sent his son back to him. I ditched his henchmen. How’d he win?”

Gabrielle chose that moment to enter, coming over to sit next to her partner.  “Hey.”

“He had a bet with Zeus.”  Apollo stated.

“Oh for crying out loud. Not again.”  Gabrielle stood back up and tugged on Xena’s sleeve. “C’mon, Xe. I’ve got a nice big bowl of soup and hammock waiting for us.”

Xena got up to join her. “I don’t even want to hear it.” She agreed. “He’s a coward. Wouldn’t even stand up to us himself. “

“Yeah!” Aphrodite said, brightening. “Shoulda seen it.” She nudged Ares in the shoulder. “Xena had him down on the ground in a headlock and I was whacking him with zingers. “

Both of Ares eyebrows lifted. “Yeah?”

“Totally true.”  Gabrielle agreed. “I was throwing rocks.  I think Xe even clipped him with your sword.”  She indicated the Sword of War, then glanced up at them as  complete silence fell among the Olympians.

Ares took a careful breath.  “Didja?” He asked Xena, after a long pause.

Xena studied them, noting the sudden change of expression even on Aphrodite’s face.  “I did.” She confirmed quietly. “Cut him in the neck. I saw the blood fly.”

Artemis put her hand up over her mouth in reaction, her other hand going out blindly to find Apollos.

Xena sat back own and patted the bale next to her.  “I think you just changed the picture, hon.

Gabrielle sighed and resumed her seat.  “Didn’t mean to.” She acknowledged.  “I just remembered that and I wondered, you  know? About the blood and all that stuff. Because he ran from you and Aphrodite.”  She paused, thoughtfully.   “You fought with him, Xe, then Aphrodite was beating up on him and then he disappeared, after his gray army came in.”

Apollo slowly got up, releasing his twin sister’s hand and walked over to crouch next to Gabrielle.  “You saw this all?” He asked. “Could you tell us everything you did see? It could  be very important.”

Gabrielle exchanged looks with her partner.   Xena shrugged a little, lifting her hands and putting them back down. “I can.”  She said.  “But you know what?  I’m not going to.” She stood up. “I’m done with you all.”  She turned and left the niche they were all in, leaving utter silence behind her.

Apollo looked up at Xena. “Can you m… persuade her to tell us?”

“Why should I?” She answered. “Why should she want to? Shes probably remembering you telling Aphrodite to abandon us in that crevice. Screw you.”

“I could kill you.” He answered, conversationally. “I am, still, a son of Zeus.”

Xena shook her head. “No you couldn’t.”  She said, just as conversationally.  “G’wan. Try it.”

He stared at her.  She stared  back at him.  Behind him, in her peripheral vision she could see Ares and Aphrodite just watching, with somewhat neutral expressions.

What would happen? What would he do? What would she do?   Xena was relatively sure of only one thing, that very soon she’d get up and leave the cavern, and taste Gabrielle’s bowl of soup and they would lay down together in a hammock and savor their love.

She really didn’t care what Apollo was going to do, and so, when he abruptly stood and thrust his hands at her, and red fireballs appeared to shoot right at her face,  she did nothing to stop them and they exploded against her skin without any impact.

Felt like soap bubbles.  She almost even convinced herself that she could smell the faint, spicy residue of her mother’s hand made soap in them.   It made her think of home, and their cabin, and bathtime with Dori.

Apollo stepped back in shock and stared at her. 

Xena shrugged and stood up, dusting herself off. “C’mon out to the cookfire if you’re hungry.” She said, simply, before she turned and followed Gabrielle’s steps outside.

**

Apollo stepped back and sat down,  looking stunned.  After a moment he looked over at Ares, who had extended his legs and crossed them at the ankles. “Now I know how our father felt.”  He said. “Things just stop working.”

“Freaky, huh?”  Ares said. “I told you not to screw around with her.”

“Yeah, and like, you think that’s a way to get help?”  Aphrodite added. 

Apollo ignored the tone.  “She drew his blood.” He said.  “She was the rightful holder, stupid as that was of you,a nd she drew his blood, Ares.”

“Uh huh. S’what I was hoping she’d do. Actually, I was hoping she’d put the damn thing right thorugh his loins.”  Ares said. “So he didn’t win.”

Apollo stared off into the distance, then looked at Aphrodite. “He struck at her? And failed? You’re sure?”

Aphrodite nodded. “But it wasn’t a biggie. He was already crapping his toga.” She said. “She told him she’d tell all his groobly ghouls how to get out of Hades, and dude, she knows.” The Goddess of Love folded her hands.  “She’s the key. She always was, he always knew it.” She nudged Ares with her elbow.  “So now she won daddy’s bet again, and we’re still screwed.”

“How?” Artemis spoke up at last, sitting in her corner, cradling her arm, pale as a ghost. “She’s just a bastard mortal.” She shifted a sideways glace at Ares. “Unless you’re going to fess up finally.”

Ares shook his head. “None of mine.” He said, in a sad tone. “None of mine, mores the pity.” He stood up, lifting the sword up and letting it rest on his shoulder.  “I finally saw it, when we were fighting our way out here.   Army from the port city, coming at her and she lifted up that sword and charged them and by the name of Zeus.” He spread his free hand out. “By the name of Zeus, I, I the God of War, wanted to follow her.”

The other three remained quiet, watching him.

“She is the elemental of what I am, what they worshipped me for.” Ares said, tipping his head back and regarding the cavern ceiling.  “Of course I gave her this.” He lifted the Sword and let it fall. “Idiot.” He now straightened and looked at Apollo.  “I couldn’t have fought him. Neither could you. He’s family.”

Apollo tilted his head in acknowledgement.

“But Xena could.”

“Xena did.”  Aphrodite confirmed. “But, so now what?  Daddy won his bet. Why are we still here? Why is she still mortal?”  She indicated Artemis. “Persphone’s gate is destroyed.  Now what?”

“Now what.”  Apollo repeated glumly.  “That’s a good question.”

“Maybe something happened and there really is no more home.” Aphrodite said, after a long moment of silence. “Maybe this is all there is left.”

There was a sound of footsteps, and they looked up, to see two of the Amazons entering with a tray. “Hello.”  The shorter of the two said. “We thought you’d like some soup and bread. It’s all we have, but it’s quite nice.”

“And a couple apples.”  The taller of the two added, putting a small bowl down.  “And this.” She added a wineskin, then half turned to address Ares. “And thanks for saving our butts.”

Ares hesitated, then he moved closer to them.  “You got the gate open.” He said, pointing at Cait with his sword. “Good job.”

Cait folded her hands. “Wasn’t anything really.” She responded politely. “Gabrielle figured it all out.”

Ares nodded.  Then he casually lifted his sword up and touched the top of Paladia’s head with it, then Cait’s, watching both of them carefully to see that faint catch in breathing. Then he winked at them, and picked up the wineskin.

They both smiled, and backed out, disappearing into the faint haze from the main part of the cavern.

“Is this the time to be collecting accolytes?” Apollo remarked, wearily. 

Ares let the sword rest on his shoulder again.  “When if not now?” He retreated to the rock ledge and sat down, uncapping the wineskin and taking a sip from it.  “If not them, then who?”

“You doing poetry now, bro?”  Aphrodite was smiling knowingly, accepting the skin when he passed it to her. 

“Hey you were shooting fireballs.”  Ares picked up a bit of his cloak and wiped the sword down, inspecting it’s surface before he finally reseated it into it’s sheath. 

Artemis got up and went to the tray, retrieving some bread and a bowl awkwardly with one hand.  She retreated to her corner and set her burden down, with a tiny shake of her head, then looked up, about to speak when the entryway filled again with Xena’s tall form.

The warrior crossed the chamber and took a seat next to her, unrolling a leather sack.  “Let me see your hand.” She said, briefly.  “Never got set, did it?”  She indicated her cloth over leather clad knee. “Put it there. I’ll do what I can for it.”

Artemis looked up into those clear, pale eyes. “After everything, why would you?”

“Because I can.” Xena said, candidly. “And you did us all a favor leading the army up here. Would have never gotten here in time otherwise, and they drew Hades’ troops off.”

The mortal goddess digested this, then nodded and eased her hand over, uncovering it from the cloak fold it had been under and carefully positioning it palm up on Xena’s knee.  “But you would do this even so.”

“Yes.”  Xena examined the hand, grimacing a little.  She touched Artemis’s wrist with her fingers, then pressed against nerves there.

Artemis gasped, and jerked. 

“No pain?” Xena guessed. “Don’t’ get used to it.  I can’t do that for long.”  She went to work on the swollen, grossly disfigured appendage, feeling through the disfigured flesh for bones and moving them carefully into place.

Apollo edged over to watch. “You know this art.” He commented, after a moment. “I am it’s patron.”

Xena had, actually, forgotten that.  She spared him a glance, and merely grunted in assent, using her task to defer further talk.   It was a bad fracture, and she gave Artemis a healthy bucket of guts points for enduring it without complaint. 

“She’s good at it.” Ares looked up from his bowl of soup. “She got one of Hade’s arrows out of me before it could send me to Tartarus.”

Xena focused past them, as she concentrated on the work under her fingers.  She half closed her eyes and as she worked the broken bones into place, imagining in her head the structure beneath the flesh she couldn’t actually see.

Some of the bones had started to fuse, and she grimaced a little as she shifted them,  working in silence until she finally had them sorted.  Then she took some lengths of wood from the kit and measured them, breaking them in sections with casual expertise.

She removed some lambs wool from the kit and gently wrapped the hand with it, then laid the supports in place before wrapping it all in place.  “Okay, hang on. It’s going to hurt again.” She told Artemis.

The goddess nodded, and drew in a breath as the nerve blocks were removed, holding it briefly, and then letting it back out. “Not as much.” She stated “Will this mend?”

“It will.” Xena said, as she put her gear away. “We mortals are built to mend. Helps when you’re getting beat up all the time.” She gently set the hand on it’s owner’s lap, then got up and took one of the cups that Cait had brought. 

She filled it with wine, then mixed the contents of a packet into it. “If you drink this, it’ll make the pain less.” She handed the cup to Artemis. “But wrapping it like that keeps all the parts still. That will help more until it heals.”

She glanced at Ares, who met her gaze with a faint, wry smile.  “We’re moving out in the morning.” She said, then headed for the opening, tucking her kit along her side as she left them.

Apollo thoughtfully reached over and touched the bandage, then turned his head to regard the soup. “If not them, who?” He repeated Ares words in an undertone. “Who indeed?”

**

Xena put her kit away in her saddlebags and paused, looking around the cavern.  She spotted Gabrielle in a moment, the bard seated near the firepit with a bowl in her hands.   After only a brief second she looked up, and their eyes met.

Xena put the saddlebag down and walked over, taking a seat next to her partner inside a small group of soldiers and Amazons. 

“Xena?” One of the soldiers came over, offering her a bowl.  “Good to get warmed up inside.”

Xena accepted it, cupping her hands around the worn wooden surface, feeling the scrapes and nubbles against her skin.  “Thanks.”  She took a sip from the edge of the bowl.  “I think I also owe you all a thanks for coming in after us. Took a lot of guts.”

The soldiers straightened up a little in reflex.  “Wasn’t going to let you sit in there, Xena.”  Bennu spoke up. He was seated on the ground with his long legs splayed out over the stone.  “Started chopping through the rock for that lady told us about this place.”

Cait came over and settled down next to him.   She was a little pale, and her eyes had dark smudges under them, but then so did most of the rest of them.  “That other fellow found Jessan and I.” She volunteered. “He brought us here, and we were quite glad about that. Saved us a hike.”

“Apollo?” Gabrielle asked, in a quiet voice.

“Yes.” Cait nodded, then cleared her throat. “So, what actually happens now?” She asked, looking over at Xena.  “I mean, we started off wanting to help some people, and we ended up… um… “

“Halfway buried in Hades’ realm.”  Gabrielle finished. 

“Well, yes.”

“Was there a point to this?”  Solari spoke up, after an awkward silence. “Really?”

Gabrielle turned and looked at Xena. “Was there?”

Xena drank her soup for a few minutes in silence, while the rest of the group around her waited.  What, really, could she say?  Had there been a point? Had she lost scores of her militia for some actual reason or just in service to her bad judgement?

Was it bad? Could she run along the timeline to before they’d left Amphipolis, and go back to a moment before she’d decided she was going to take her army out and say, yes, that was a good choice?

She stared into the fire, through the flames, watching the motion of them, trying to step outside herself for a moment and just look.

Just look at what they’d been through. “I think we had to do this.”  She finally said, sounding surprised to hear the words. “There was a crossroad and we had to move through it.”

“Get past Olympus?”  Gabrielle asked, quietly.

‘Get Olympus past itself.”  Her partner replied. “I think we did something. We played a part in all that. I just don’t know if there was any reason to it.”

Everyone around her was nodding in agreement. 

“I just don’t know.” Xena sighed. “So we should get some rest, and then tomorrow head home.”

“Boy that sounds good to me.”  Gabrielle rested her head against Xena’s shoulder. ‘But for the record? If I had it to do over again, we would have stayed home.  I think this whole thing was a setup.”

Xena regarded her thoughtfully.

“I mean it.  They gamed us, Xe.”  The bard said. “Those guys? Those visitors to Amphipolis? They pitched us right where they knew we’d bite.  Some big jerk messing with a little town?” She snorted softly. “Sucked us right in.”

“Who did?”  Cait asked.

“Olympus.”  Gabrielle replied. “Smells like them.  They had some game going, some bet on, some something and they thought, hey let’s drag Xena into it. She’s always fun to watch.”

Xena shook her head. “People died for that.”  She said. “We lost good people in this game of theirs.”  She rested her elbows on her knees and somberly regarded the fire. “I’m tired of suffering for them. Even Ares coming in and pulling us out – we wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for him.”

Gabrielle looked at her. “Hey.” She lowered her voice. “What is it we owe her for?”

Her partner smiled briefly. “She’s the one who got you out of the lava pit.” She responded quietly. “She saved you, and Dori.” She paused, hearing Gabrielle’s faint, indrawn gasp. “Gave me my life back.” 

Oh.  Gabrielle felt a prickling on her skin, remembering that horrible, soul wrenching moment, feeling the pain of it all over again. “Saved me from myself.”  She acknowledged. “Oh Xe.”

“Yeah.”

The bard reached over and squeezed her hand, then she got up and circled the fire, touching Jess on the shoulder as she moved past, going over to the entrance to the cavern and looking out.

It was cold here, the snow had stopped for the moment but the air was crisp and sharp in her lungs, making her eyeballs sting as she stood quietly, watching her breath rise from her partially open mouth.

The forest was dark, leading down the ridge.  The sky overhead was inky black,  stars etched sharply against the sky with no moon visible, and aside from the faint sound of the dead tree branches rustling against each other, it was quiet.

Looking out over the valley, from Persephone’s gate she could see the snow covered opening between the trees that was the path downward, and as far as her eyes could see there was nothing but ice and snow and cold.

They Olympians were convinced it would stay like this.  Xena had been places, though, where winter just didn’t exist.  In fact the pretty silver horse Iolaus had came from a place just like that.  A place of neverending sun, and sand and heat.

What was the value of belief?

She heard footsteps behind her and she turned, to find Aphrodite there.  “Hey.”

“Hey.” The Goddess of Love returned the greeting.  “Kinda sucky day, huh?”  She had her cloak wrapped around her, her curly blond hair ruffling slightly in the breeze.

Gabrielle extended her hands and took hold of Aphrodite’s.  “Xe told me why we owe you one.”  She said. “So with all my heart, Aphrodite. Thank you.”

The goddess looked a bit embarrassed, and she scrunched her face up in reaction. “I got in so much trouble for that.” She admitted. “But I was super glad I did it.  That was really gutsy of you.”

Gabrielle half shook her head. “Yeah that was hard.”  She said, softly. “Hard, because I knew I was carrying Dori.  Hard because I was leaving Xe behind.”

“Yeah.”

‘But it was my thing to do.”  The bard concluded. “And you got me out of it”

“I did.” Aphrodite nodded. “Gabrielle, you did the right thing.” She said, in a somber tone. “It would have ended up seriously not cool for you if you hadn’t done it, but it wasn’t fair to make you pay out like that, you know? That whole thing with Dahok – that was our gig, not yours.”

“Huh.”

“So I didn’t care if I got in trouble.” Aphrodite stepped forward and gave her a gentle hug.  “I’m glad it worked out, you know?”

They had walked a little bit outside, under the canopy of stars.  “I am too.”  Gabrielle smiled, after a pause. “I’m glad I got to meet my kid.  Did you know Xe got her a pony on our last crazy trip?”

“A pony?”  Aphrodite cocked her head to one side. “Awww, that’s cute. I have to go see the little snookums.” She glanced out over the icy scene.  “I think we’re going to hike with you guys. No other place for us to go I guess.”

“You can’t just go back to Olympus?”

The goddess shook her head. “Apollo tried. Thought maybe he could go ask the rents what the deal was, but no go.  We’re kinda stuck here.”  She made a face. “But hey, maybe we can figure it all out on the hike back to your place.”

Gabrielle sighed, straightening a little as she sensed Xena coming up behind her.  She felt the gentle pressure as Xena put her hands on her shoulders, and acknowledged a sense of impatience now that whatever it was was over and they needed to start back home.

It was cold and she was tired, and more than anything on earth she wanted to be home, the journey behind her, back again with her daughter and her Amazon family.  For one of the first times in a while, she had no desire at all to be out having an adventure.

“Wish we were home, Xe.” 

“Me too.”  Xena let her chin rest against Gabrielle’s head. “This is all just crap.”

“Yeah.”  Aphrodite agreed. “Sorry we can’t just poof everyone there.”  She patted Gabrielle’s arm, and stepped past them to re-enter the cavern, leaving the two of them standing there in chilly embrace.

“I wish they could too. We’re going to freeze our buns off going home.”  Gabrielle groused.  “It’s too damn cold, hon.”

“Mm.” Xena grunted thoughtfully.  “Maybe we can do something about that. “ She said. “C”mon.”  She steered Gabrielle inside the cave, nudging her towards the fire.  “I’ve got an idea.”

“Oh boy.”

**

They wandered back into the center of the cavern, where the army was starting to settle down to get some rest.   Though their own gear was stashed back in a corner with some privacy, Xena found a crate next to the fire and sat down on it.

She drew attention.  The soldiers who were folding up cloaks to make pillows half turned to keep her in view, and the Amazons came wandering over as Gabrielle dragged over a camp stool and sat down next to her.

“Up for telling a story?”  Xena asked, softly.

“Oh Xe, no.” The bard sighed. “I’m tired. My throat hurts. I think I’m getting a cold.”

Xena kicked her heels against the crate a bit, as the circle of watchers continued to grow. “Maybe just a short one?”

Both of Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted, and she glanced over to study Xena’s profile.  Normally, a demurral would have been taken seriously, and a claim of any illness would have brought out her soulmate’s kit of herbs in a heartbeat.

For Xena to ask twice for a story?  “What’s up?”  She asked conversationally.

Xena cleared her throat. “I just thought everyone might like to hear a story.”  She said noting the quickly pricked ears of those closest to her.  “Maybe one of the older legends.”

Mmhm.   “Maybe one about the gods?”  Gabrielle guessed. “Is that what you’re hinting at? You want me to buff up their image for these guys? Really, Xe?”

Xena looked at the fire thoughtfully.  “You told me, once.” She said. “That I do things because I believe I can.”

The bard sighed, easily seeing where this was going.  “Xena, that’s you.”

‘That’s me.  But I remember what it felt like to hear you tell other people a story about me that made me look like something other than a grumpy jackass.”

“Mmph.”

“Give them that gift, hon.” Xena uttered under her breath. “For me? Please?” She leaned against Gabrielle. “I’ll mix up some tea for your cold.”

And that, of course was that.  Gabrielle didn’t think for one minute a story would make a difference to them. They were too ancient, too jaded.  They’d seen too much, experienced too much.  They weren’t Xena.

She felt the warmth where Xena’s body was pressing against her, and she met those eyes, where the soul shining from them owned her fully.

She leaned over and kissed the warrior on the lips.  “Only for you, my love.”   She whispered, before she straightened up and got off the camp stool, strolling over near the fire and shrugging off her cloak.

“May I, Gabrielle?”  Jessan held a paw out to her. “Hold your cloak?”

“Sure.”  She draped the garment over his arm and rubbed her hands together, sorting through the stories she had readily available, trying to think of a story that would gild the Olympians without being too obvious about it.

Behind her, she sensed Xena settling down on her crate, a glance over her shoulder showed the warm smile on her partner’s face and she smiled back, before she turned back around to face the fire, and the audience just past it.

“You all up to hear a story?” She asked, as some of the scouts scrambled up onto the wagons to get a better view.  “Kind of end the night out before we get some sleep?”

Everyone clapped and whistled, and Gabrielle didn’t deny the warmth that caused as her ego responded to it.  “Okay.  So, since we’ve gotten to spend some time with the sons and daughters of Zeus this little while I thought I’d tell you an old story I used to hear around the campfire when I was a little kid.”

She turned abruptly and pointed at Xena. “Don’t say it.”

Xena grinned at her. “I wasn’t.”

“You were thinking it.”  The bard shook a finger at her, before she turned back around. “That sound okay? I don’t think I’ve told this one before.”

She made eye contact and swiveled, seeing the interest and feeling the prickle of excitement she’d lately realized would sometimes greet her new efforts. 

“Have I heard this one?”  Xena called over, softly.

“Not from me.”  Gabrielle flexed her hands. “So here we go.” She let her voice lift a little, taking on tone and timber to echo a bit off the stone walls, sure to lift and spread into the alcove where the Olympians were resting.  

So.

“So what is humanity,  save a reflection of that which they worship?” Gabrielle drew in a breath and released it, abandoning herself to her imagination as she raised her hands and invited the listeners in with her.  “Listen now to a tale of what it means to be mortal, and to be immortal, and to what ties the two together.”

**

“What are they doing?”  Apollo was standing near the entrance to their seclusion.

Aphrodite came over and peered past him. “Oh.” She nodded knowledgably.  “Storytime.” She said. “Gabrielle’s gonna entertain them I guess.”

Apollo frowned, then turned and looked at her. “As in the hall at home? After dinner?”

“Something like that.”  The Goddess of Love agreed. “Gabrielle’s pretty rad at that. She usually yaps around about Xena, you know? That was part of the gig before they were going to try and goose our reps but it didn’t work out.”

Apollo studied the group outside, as Gabrielle shed her cloak and stepped closer to the fire.  “Why?” He asked. “Mortals are gullible for tales.”

“I think they ended up killing too many people to tell stories.”  Artemis had joined them. “Is what I heard once they found us.”

“Mortals believe whatever they’re told.” Apollo commented.  “Was that not how we controlled them? Our oracles spoke our words to them, and they obeyed. Look at the Spartans.” He turned and regarded Ares, who was still sprawled out on the rocks, lazily watching them. “A word to them to find a woman to lead them was all that took.”

“Yes, and look where that ended us up.” His twin sister said, acidly. “Athena is violated, and probably perished by now, and likely I will soon be the same.”

Apollo looked abashed.  “I didn’t mean to bring that up.” He admitted. “Sorry.”

Artemis sighed. “No, don’t be.” She stared past him at the group of mortals settling themselves to be engaged by the story that Gabrielle was starting.  “All the blaming elsewhere has gotten us where we are, Apollo.  We shouldn’t have let ourselves be drawn into father’s entertainment.”

“Shoulda left my damn war alone!”  Ares commented loudly.

Artemis looked over her shoulder at him. “Yes.” She said, in a quiet tone. “We should have, Ares. We had no cause to try and usurp your place. We mistook father’s anger at that for encouragement. “ She shook her head a little. “Hercules was right.”

“And you guys zapped him.”  Aphrodite said “We heard.” She indicate herself and Ares.  “So uncool.”

“Shh.”  Apollo suddenly said, holding a hand up.  “Listen.”  He took a step forward, tilting his head. “She speaks of us.”

“I can just imagine.” Ares sighed, putting his head back down on the rock behind him. “No telling what story’s gonna come out of that mouth.”

“But this is new.”  Apollo said. “I have not heard this one.”  He started forward, aiming for a crook in the rock half hidden from the fire.  “How can there be a tale of us we do not know?”

Artemis followed him, brushing past Aphrodite, who turned and lifted both hands as she faced Ares.  “Bro?”

Ares rolled his eyes.

“I’m like, sure you’re gonna be in this thing.”

With a long suffering sigh,  Ares got to his feet and trudged over, bumping into Aphrodite and nudging them both forward.  “Bet you are too.”

**

Xena found herself ignoring the hardness of the rocks she was leaning against, completely absorbed in the story Gabrielle was telling.   It was one that she hadn’t, in fact heard before, a tale about the beginnings of the Olympians that went through the different facets of humanity they had come to champion.

It had humor, and heart and as Gabrielle skillfully painted the story for all of them she could feel that sense of slight dislocation as she let her surroundings fade out, and enjoyed the images the bard put into her minds eye.

“And so they became our teachers.”  Gabrielle was saying.  “We were like children, who only knew home, and the campfire, and sticks to dig with and they decided to teach us how to build great things, and grow great things, and how to pass that knowledge down to our own children.”

Heads in the audience ringing her nodded.   

Xena spotted in her peripheral vision the shadowy forms of the Olympians, taking seats on a stack of blankets out of view of the army, and of Gabrielle. They were listening with various degrees of intentness from Apollo the greatest amount to Ares the least.

Apollo was, Xena remembered now, the patron god of the arts. Of painters and stonecrafters, and singers and bards, whose statue in fact stood outside the academy of bards in Athens.

She could see the interest in their expressions though, interest and a touch of wonder, a quirked eyebrow even from Ares who after a moment stood up and came over to join her, plopping down next to her on the crate in full view of the army.

Her patron.  Xena left her arm draped where it was and thought about that.  As a teenager she’d been his acolyte.  She’d laid offerings on his temple altars, including the hearts of some of her early conquests.

He’d liked that.  Shown himself to her.  Praised her budding mastery of the sword.

Had he really taught her anything though?  She watched the fire outline Gabrielle’s body as she remembered her partner slowly, almost agonizingly gaining the skills she was now displaying, this effortless storytelling.

Like her now effortless ability to use weapons, gained with the same long years of practice.

Gabrielle had seen the motion and she briefly paused and glanced behind her. “And of course, they taught us, taught us mortals who knew about death, and pain and dying already,  about war. “

Ares lifted a hand and waved it, then let it drop.   Then he leaned over. “Where is she getting all this stuff from?”  He whispered into Xena’s ear.

Xena eyed him. “You tell me?”

Ares made a face at her and shrugged his shoulders.  “Not my gig.”

“Not mine either.”

Gabrielle’s voice took on a bit more volume, and they both fell silent to listen, the story rolling over them now as it told of a horrible danger to the mortal world, and humanity in peril, and how the Olympians had descended from their mountain to battle on their behalf.

“The spirits of darkness were terrible.”  Gabrielle said. “They swept down upon us and killed life where they found it – they withered the grass, and stilled the newborn and when the mortal world stood on the edge, they came.”

Xena looked at Ares, his eyes focused on Gabrielle, expression intent. 

“They came when the night was darkest.” The bard’s voice softened. “When we had nothing to offer them. No sacrifice to make save the dedication of our souls.”

There was an eerie silence after she finished speaking. Even the fire seemed to calm, no longer sending sparks up or emitting crackles as wood was consumed.

“Why would they do that?” Gabrielle asked, into all that silence.  “Why bother with us, our short lived selves, and stand between us and another one such as them?”

“Cause you were our patch.”  Ares spoke up, from behind her, his deep voice echoing off the rocks.

All eyes shifted from the bard to the tall, dark haired being behind her.  Ares had his long legs sprawled out, and his hands folded together over his belt.  “We made ya interesting. A little.”

Xena nudged him with an elbow. “Be nice.”

Gabrielle grinned briefly, then she swiveled around to continue, drawing a breath that she then just held when a deep, bright flash lit the cavern, blinding all of them.  She threw up her arm over her eyes  and felt a deep, buzzing tickle cover her skin and hold her still.

She couldn’t even yell.  She couldn’t hear, or hardly breathe, though she became aware of a powerful force coming up next to her and softly, almost in an echo, a loud and angry voice.

Probably was Xena. She forced her hand to move, the one not covering her eyes, and reached out to feel arms around her.

More voices.  Cries of pain.

Then the tingle faded and the light wasn’t nearly as bright against her eyelids and she squeezed them open,  as a loud rumble of thunder shuddered the air.  “Ow!”

“Hang on.”  Xena was right there at her side.   “Damn it! Cut that out!”

“Silence!”  A deep voice answered.

“I SAID CUT THAT OUT!” Xena bellowed back.  “I don’t give a damn who you are!”

Silence.

Then the horrible grip relaxed, and she was free.

Gabrielle blinked the tears out of her eyes and looked around, unsurprised to see Zeus, and Hera, and several others on a ledge over their heads.  “Jerk.”  She exhaled in disgust. “Don’t even know why I tried that for them, Xe.”

Xena patted her side.  “Easy.”

“Arrogant old ass.” Her partner grumbled.

“Silence.” Zeus repeated. “You have all violated a sacred space and destroyed that which belonged to Hades.”

Xena walked to the edge of the fire, looking across it, past the still and frozen figures of her army, and friends.  “On your behalf.”

“And you,  who took what wasn’t yours, spilled our blood.”

Ares appeared, nudging Xena aside a little and coming to stand between them and Zeus.  “Not really the way it was, pops.”  He said.  “My sword. I gave it to her.”

Zeus stared at him.

“I gave it to her, after old Uncle spilled MY blood.”  The God of War said, pointing at his own chest. “And she won your bet for you. So don’t be so ungrateful, huh?”

Apollo walked over and joined them, looking first at Gabrielle, then up at his parents. “You wrong these mortals, father.” He said. “This one was just telling a marvelous story about us. One I didn’t know.”

Aphrodite had by now come over and joined them on the other side of Ares, her hand coming to rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder.  “Hey, we did what you told us to do!” She said. “What’s the scam?”

Zeus studied all of them. “Fools.”

“No they’re right.”  Artemis joined them.  “These mortals have taught me much, both good and bad. They didn’t violate Persephone’s Gate. I led them to it.”

“Did you.”  Zeus said, in a dry, cold voice.

“I did. What choice did I have? It was your caprice that put me here, that broke me. That got my sister ravished. For what?” Artemis said. “For what?  For your amusement, father?  What this mortal said on Mount Olympus was the truth.”  She pointed at Gabrielle.  “Now I know well what it feels like to be  a plaything.”

A blast of white light and she collapsed on the ground, senseless.

“Father!” Apollo knelt next to her. “For speaking the truth?”

“What is truth?” Zeus asked, drily. ‘Truth says you were sent here to command the mortals, and ended up in their charity.  You shame me.”

Ares half turned. “Get out of here.” He said, in a deadly serious tone. “I’ll cover for you.”

Xena glanced around at the cavern. “Can’t’” She said. “Not without the rest of em.”

“Don’t be an idiot.”  The God of War whispered. “They’re already dead.”

Xena went still. “What?”

“They’re dead.” Ares repeated. “That blast daddy did? They’re toast. They’re basically statues. Dead. Mort. Gone.” He said. “So g’wan. Get your asses out of here.  Last chance.  Say I owed you one.”

Gabrielle inhaled in horror, her eyes going to the frozen, still figures of Cait, and Solari, and Jessan, caught in mid motion.  “Oh, Xe.” She whispered. “Oh no.”

Xena walked a few steps forward, easing past Ares and facing Zeus. “Did you?” She asked, in a loud voice. “Did you just kill all these people?”

Zeus looked at her.  “What is it to you?” He asked. “They offended my senses. Yes. I sent them to purgatory.”

Gabrielle saw it coming. She saw Xena’s body stiffen, and her hands close and she took a deep breath as her partner went into motion. 

She took a step back and reached behind Ares shoulder, grabbing hold of the Sword of War and drawing it before she barreled forward and leaped for the ledge the king of the gods was on, before he could move or Hera either.

Before Gabrielle could react, though she bolted after her.

“You bastard!”  Xena let out a bellow as she reached the ledge and came at him, seeing his eyes go wide as he realized what was going on.

“Xena!”   Ares let out a yell of his own and leaped forward, belatedly.

Xena slammed Hera aside and backhanded Zeus before he could raise his hands to repel her.   She was aiming a slash at his chest when Ares got to her and grabbed at her arm but she ripped out of his grasp and went for Zeus, growling with rage.

She went eye to eye with him for an instant, and saw, deep inside that gaze a red reflection that was suddenly, shockingly familiar in a very bad way.  She got the Sword back around and swung for him in earnest, driven now by that innate sense of rightness that overshadowed the anger.  “You!”

“Xena!” Ares was grabbing for her again. “No!”

Gabrielle was right behind Ares, and she got in his way as he lunged for her partner, grabbing his belt and yanking him sideways as hard as she could, sensing that overwhelming understanding from her partner without really  knowing what it meant.

Just that Xena suddenly knew something that was dire, and urgent and she was acting on it.

Zeus crashed to the ground with all three of them on top of him, one hand slashing at Xena in a blaze of white light, that somehow hit the Sword and in a scream of releasing energy reflected back on Zeus as Hera cast her own bolts into the mix.

Gabrielle felt a soul rending pain contort her body as her hands reached out desperately and caught Xena’s arm and she heard a raw scream she thought maybe was her own.  

Maybe it was Xena.

Maybe it was Zeus.

Then, abruptly, it was dark.  Gabrielle felt a complete dislocation of time and space, and then she was laying horizontally, and it was a soft surface, and there was a loud, yet soundless crack.

Then it was quiet.

Really quiet.

She drew a breath and heard Xena do the same and they both sat up and looked around.  “Wh.” Gabrielle started to say, as she caught sight of a mostly guttered candle, and the red embers of a fire. “Where are we? What happened?”

The sudden sense of overwhelming familiarity was disorienting in the extreme. She’d gone from the strangeness of the cavern and the cold and the utter danger to this contained peace and silence and normality.

Xena blinked.  “We’re back.”  She said, after a moment of silence.  “We’re in our cabin.” She clarified.  “At home.”  She got up and looked around, as though expecting some of the insanity to have followed them.

Gabrielle got up and walked a few steps, then looked around, as Xena went over and freshened the candle.  They were, in fact, inside their cabin high on the mountainside above Amphipolis.  After a brief, frozen moment she went to the doorway that led into Dori’s room and looked inside.

Curled up in her bed,  their daughter was sound asleep, a scruffy mostly grown wolfdog sprawled asleep next to her.   Her eyes drifted across the room and found a new addition, a second little bed in the other corner holding a small, curly headed occupant also sound asleep.

So.

She withdrew without a sound and turned around, to find Xena looking back at her, hands resting on hips, the question so evident in her body posture it almost made Gabrielle smile.  “So.”  She uttered softly, coming back over to her partner and folding her arms.

They were both in shifts.  Both as though they’d gone to bed on a normal night as though nothing at all had happened.  A quick look showed her carrybag in it’s usual place, and a bowl with winter fruits sitting on the table she knew damn well she hadn’t left there.

What the sheeps?

She turned around, seeing Xena’s armor hanging in it’s place, her sword sheathed on it’s hooks.  Her own staff resting in the corner, a fresh sheet of parchment laying on her writing desk all ready for her morning bout of writing.

Her diary resting next to it.

Outside the window, she could see snow softly falling. “Cari’s in the room with Dori.”  Gabrielle said. “What the heck, Xe?”

“What the heck. Gabrielle. ” Her partner agreed. “I have no idea what the heck, but I’m going to go down to town just to make sure this is not some scam.” She went over to the clothing press and started to exchange her shift for warm clothing.

They both paused as they heard footsteps crunching through the snow outside, and Gabrielle went and retrieved her staff as a knock came at the door.    “Knew this wasn’t going to be that easy.”

“Ungh” Xena abandoned the wardrobe and pulled her sword from it’s sheath on the way over, yanking the door open as she kept the weapon ready, to find a figure wrapped in a cloak standing on the porch, carrying a lightly crackling torch.

“Hot damn.”  Solari’s voice broke the silence. “You’re here too!”

**

They met on the level area on the path that split downward for the town and sideways to the Amazon village.  Solari, Cait and Paladia,  Xena and Gabrielle, and Bennu, who’d just climbed up from the barracks which was in total confusion and befuddlement.

“Like, what the actual Hades is going on here?” Paladia asked. “Those people in there remember us doing stuff we didn’t do like march back in here yesterday.”

“Aye.” Bennu agreed. “T’town says we came back in just after dark.  All of us crossing the bridge, going to barracks.” He lifted his hands. “Genr’l, we didn’t do none of that.”

“Yes. Eponin told me she and Ephiny greeted us when we arrived and we had dinner with them in their quarters – but we didn’t do that.” Cait shook her head. “I know we didn’t. Goodness, Xena! Last night I was stuck in a crack getting squished to death!”

“Right.”  Solari agreed. “I’m glad as nuts we’re here, don’t get me wrong.” She said.  “Save that long ass walk, you  know?”

“We know.”  Gabrielle said. “We’re as confused as you are. Trust me.” She scrubbed her face with one hand. “I should go talk to Eph.”

Xena now in her leathers and thick leggings, put her hands on her hips. “What’s the last thing you do remember doing?” She asked Solari.

“We were listening to Gabrielle tell that story.”  Solari said, promptly. “I remember thinking about going to get a cup of cider, then all of a sudden there was a big bang.”

“Big bang.” Cait nodded. “Yes. I remember that too. Then I was in my hammock here.  Very, very odd.”

“But we were gone a moon.” Solari added. “Eph said, she was surprised we were back so soon. Wanted to know how we did.”

Xena turned to Gabrielle. “What was the last thing you remember?”

Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest and thought.  “I remember seeing Ares come over and sit down next to you, and starting to tell that part of the story.” She said, watching the rest of them nod. “Then I remember…” She paused “A big bang. You?”

They all looked at Xena in question.  “Yeah, same for me.” She answered after a pause. “Just a loud cracking sound, then it got dark, then we were here.”

“Then we were here.” Gabrielle repeated softly. “Wonder what the story is behind that?”

**

Really concluded in Part 23